Keith W. Ward
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
His oath, His covenant, His blood
Support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.
When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, may I then in Him be found;
Dressed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
—Edward Mote (1797-1874)
The name of Edward Mote does not often rest on the lips of the Church today in the same fashion as Fanny J. Crosby, B. B. McKinney, Ira Sankey, or other greats in hymnody. However, the testimony of his life is one that should inspire all Christians. Mote was not brought up in a godly home and did not have the advantage of early exposure to Scripture. In fact, his parents managed a pub in London and often neglected young Edward, who spent most of his Sundays playing in the city streets.1 Of his theological upbringing, he said “So ignorant was I that I did not know that there was a God.”2
Eventually Mote became exposed to the Word of God, and was baptized at the age of 18. This event, however, did not send Mote immediately into the ministry. He was apprenticed to become a cabinetmaker, a career which he successfully conducted for another 37 years. Eventually, at the age of 55, he became pastor of a Baptist church in Horsham, Sussex, where he did not miss a Sunday in the pulpit for the next 21 years.3 He resigned from this pastorate in 1873 due to ill health, and died the following year at the age of 77.
It was with this background that Mote wrote the hymn we have today, “The Solid Rock.” It was during his career as a cabinetmaker that the hymn came into being. One morning in 1834 as he was walking to work, it entered his mind to write a hymn. By the time he got to work, he had the chorus. He wrote four more verses over the course of that day and two additional verses before he was finished.4
The hymn was published anonymously in several hymn collections before first being attributed to Mote in a collection of approximately 100 of his hymns published in 1837 (Hymns of Praise, A New Selection of Gospel Hymns, Combining All the Excellencies of our Spiritual Poets, with Many Originals). Mote’s original title for the hymn in this collection was “The Immutable Basis of a Sinner’s Hope.” The tune “Solid Rock” to which Mote’s words are most commonly set was composed by William B. Bradbury for this text in 1863. An alternative tune sometimes used is “Melita” by John B. Dykes, to which the hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” (i.e., “The Navy Hymn”) is commonly sung.
Interestingly, there seems to be some discrepancy surrounding the verses of this hymn. In addition to the four commonly sung verses printed above, Mote composed two others. One source lists the other two as
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
’Midst all the hell I feel within,
On His completed work I lean.
I trust His righteous character
His council, promise, and His power;
His honor and His name’s at stake,
To save me from the burning lake.5
Another writer, however, states that the first line of Mote’s original version read, “Nor earth, nor hell my soul can move.”6 Even the verses that are commonly preserved are somewhat in question. For example, the second stanza is often rendered in many modern hymnals with an alternative version of the first line, such as “When darkness seems to hide His face.”7 Furthermore, some hymnals alter the word “veil” in the last line to read “vale”8 or “vail,”9 either with or without invoking the alternative first line.
Regardless of the exact version employed, “The Solid Rock” falls firmly into the category of a gospel hymn. Frances Mosher has identified several musical characteristics of gospel hymns which apply to “The Solid Rock.”10 The song has a simple melody, a 3/4 meter, and a repeating refrain. Although the term “gospel hymn” is considered distinctively American, with its origins in the camp meetings of the early nineteenth century,11 Mote’s 1836 publication from London contained this term, and this hymn, which certainly qualifies it as one of the earliest gospel hymns.
As to the doctrinal message of the hymn, several key thoughts and phrases qualify it as a “Hymn of Grace.” Of course, the chorus itself clearly sets forth the message of grace. The metaphor of Christ as a rock is one with a firm basis in Scripture (1 Cor 10:4), and has been previously described in depth in this feature.12
In the first stanza, hardly a clearer statement of total dependence on Christ could be made. Mote recognizes that our hope for eternal life depends completely upon Jesus’ righteousness, not on some sweet earthly frame. Nothing in this hymn ever hints that any work on our part can add to Christ’s work in order to secure our eternal salvation. However, the hymn is not ignorant of the reality of our daily struggles. In the second and third stanzas, Mote recognizes that there are times when the doubts, cares, and darkness of this world will seem to weaken our fellowship with God and veil His face from us. Even in these times, when “all around [our] soul gives way,” God has not left us. Our anchor of faith can still hold in the darkness, knowing through faith that even though not seen (Heb 11:1), He still sustains us. It is at these times that it is most important, in Mote’s words, to “rest on His unchanging grace.” It is the immutable, certain promise of God unto salvation that allows us to have assurance even in times of great spiritual darkness. Unlike those who spend times of spiritual struggle doubting their very salvation, those who adhere to the tenets expounded from Scripture by GES rest, with Mote, in the firm knowledge of our destiny.
From a declaration of God’s grace in the first stanza, to the application of that grace in times of trouble in the second and third stanzas, the writer brings his hymn full circle in the final stanza, with the ultimate realization of God’s grace.
This hymn, penned by the son of neglectful pubkeepers in London, has become one of the most beloved gospel hymns in the Church today. Despite some variations in the precise words of the song, the basic message strongly sets forth Christ’s righteousness as the only requirement for salvation, making it very much a “Hymn of Grace.”
10Mosher, Frances, “Towards Singing with the Understanding: A Discussion of the Gospel Hymn, Part 1.” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society (Spring 1992), 55-76.
12Mosher, Frances, “Rock of Ages.” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society (Autumn 1995), 97-99.